Digest>Archives> October 2003

The Unimak Bear of Cape Sarichef

By James W. Baker


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Photo courtesy of James W. Baker

The March 1999 issue of Lighthouse Digest contained a 1935 interview with Ted Pedersen, the head lighthouse keeper from Cape Sarichef. During the interview Pedersen told several bear stories to Barrett Willoughby, the author. The bear situation apparently changed little in the 19 years between Pedersen’s tour and Baker’s arrival at Cape Sarichef in 1954.

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This small bear raided the garbage rack every ...

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Cape Sarichef Light stands on a bluff at the edge ...

United States Coast Guard LORAN Transmitting Station, Cape Sarichef, Unimak Island, Territory of Alaska-May 18, 1954 -

Cape Sarichef juts out into the Bering Sea on the northwest corner of Unimak Island. It is the farthest west lighthouse in North America. The first light station was established there in 1904, with a Coast Guard loran station added in 1950.

Unimak, the first island in the Aleutian chain, lies just off the Alaska Peninsula. It’s noted for bad weather, volcanic activity, and wild animals. When you live on a wildlife preserve, you know you’re going to see wildlife-sometimes up close. You never forget your first Alaska brownie, and Unimak Island had some big ones. We’d all heard stories of how they can kill a caribou with one swipe of a giant paw, or turn over a Jeep if they feel threatened.

Harry Strother, our chief engineer, was deathly afraid of bears-all bears-big or small, black or brown, healthy, crippled or blind. So you know that he had to be the first to encounter one of the hairy beasts.

The week prior to Strother’s harrowing experience some of the crew began seeing bears up in the pass and on the slopes of Pogromni Volcano, but the animals always remained some distance away. By mid-May we expected that most were out of their dens for the summer and searching for an easy meal.

The company that built the loran station left an array of equipment, including trucks, Jeeps, Weasels and a small tracked crane just over a hill from our main building. Chief Strother was in this so-called “vehicle dump” scrounging for parts when the bear found him.

Strother said later that he was intent on his search when he heard a grunt. He looked up and saw a big bear standing on its hind legs looking at him over the top of the Dodge Power Wagon truck.

Stunned momentarily, he froze. Instinct told him to run away from the animal, yet the pickup stood between him and the bear and it offered the only protection within a quarter mile. Despite his misgivings, he ran, jumped in the truck and slammed the door. By that time the bear had its nose at his window.

That old Dodge was always kind of hard to start, so I can imagine his concern while he ground on the starter, praying for the engine to fire. On that day it lit off after a few seconds, and when it did, he slammed the transmission in reverse, revved the engine and dumped the clutch. All four wheels spun and the pickup leaped backward. The engine revved up to a peak, then the governor shut it off until it slowed almost to an idle.

Strother said that while the engine wound down the bear shuffled alongside the truck, peering in at him. He kept his foot on the accelerator and when the governor cut back in, the engine came to life with a jerk and the wheels spun again. By the time the engine slowed for the second time he’d reached the road so he skidded to a stop, shifted to second gear and went roaring toward the station.

Some of the guys said Strother flew past the loran shack at about forty miles per hour—dangerously fast for our narrow rutted roads. He slid the pickup into the garage, jumped over a pair of spare Weasel tracks and ran past the walk-in freezer and into the engine room.

Strother wasn’t that old, but I was still surprised at how quickly he climbed onto the catwalk around one of the main engines. I wouldn’t describe him as pale, but he sure didn’t look normal—especially in the eyes. He gave a nervous glance back at the door he’d just come through and announced, “There’s a bear out there as big as a house!” With his South Carolina accent it sounded like he said, “They’s a baaih out thaya...!”

Three of us grabbed cameras and rifles and drove back to the vehicle dump, but failed to spot the big bruin. Later someone in the loran building, a hundred yards from the main station, reported seeing the bear headed our way.

I climbed onto the roof of the engine room hoping to spot the animal. In the meantime at the loran shack, Don Nigh, our radioman, slung a .30-06 rifle over his shoulder, grabbed his camera and headed out to get a picture.

From the roof, I could see Nigh skirting around the base of our water tank on a small hill behind the station. He kept the camera in front, ready for a quick snap shot.

Suddenly this honey-blond apparition came up from the waist-high grass not ten feet in front of him. Camera forgotten, Nigh slipped the rifle off his shoulder and rather than aiming, he held it out at arm’s length, almost in the bear’s face. The shaggy beast rose on its hind legs, leaned over, and kind of sniffed at the rifle barrel, only a foot or two away.

Nigh stood probably five-nine or five-ten but that bear towered above him by more than two feet. The radioman sidled around the bear so that it no longer blocked his path to the station. All the time he kept the rifle pointed at the animal’s head. It dropped to all fours and kept following him like a pet dog, never closing the gap. Station orders required that we never run from a bear, because it’s their nature to instinctively chase anything that runs.

Nigh kept glancing over his shoulder at the trail, shuffling backward, bear following. Then he spotted me on the roof. “Quick, get a gun,” he yelled. Hardly had he hollered when he turned and made a forty-yard dash for the engine room.

I didn’t have a rifle with me, and besides, the animal stopped when Nigh lit out for the building. The bear hung around until after nightfall so we took extra care-and a dog or two-whenever we went outside.

On the following day one of the men measured its footprints at 14 inches long by 9 3/4 inches wide. After that frightful experience Chief Strother always kept a rifleman on watch when he worked outdoors.

Oh, and Don Nigh didn’t even get a picture of the bear.

This story appeared in the October 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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